Domain Registrant Prevails in Gripe Site Case

 Strong decision for free speech online, but a tough decision for trademark owners (are law professors calling them trademark maximalists yet?) in Career Agents Network Inc. v., No. 09-12269 (E.D. Mich. Feb. 26, 2010). It's a gripe site case, in which the defendant's domain name incorporated the entirety of the plaintiff's mark. The court runs through several leading gripe site cases, particularly favorable Sixth Circuit law (Lucas Nursery v. Grosse, Taubman v. Webfeats, DaimlerChrysler v. the Net Inc.) on trademark/free speech questions, before concluding that the defendant's registration and use of the domain name -- which pointed to a website critical of the plaintiff's business practices -- was a non-commercial, First Amendment-protected use of the plaintiff's mark.


It is true that there is evidence that Defendants attempted to damage Plaintiff's business, but there is no evidence that Defendants attempted to "divert" Plaintiff's clients to bolster their own business. Instead, the undisputed evidence reveals that Defendants established a "gripe site," in which they expressed their strong dissatisfaction with Plaintiff's "business in a box," or investment opportunity.

The court's opinion contains some interesting loose change. The court remarked that a gripe site doesn't need a disclaimer in order to avoid a finding of "bad faith" under the federal cybersquatting statute. It rejected the plaintiff's contention that the mere registration of a domain name incorporating a mark is a commercial use of of the mark. It also rejected (for the second time) the holding in Jews for Jesus v. Brodsky, 993 F. Supp. 282 (D. N.J. 1998), that registration of a domain name incorporating the plaintiff's mark is a commercial use of the mark because it prevents the plaintiff from fully exploiting the value of the mark. Finally, the court held that the defendant's use of the domain was not, in any event, commercially misleading.